He was just so nice.
She was smitten almost from the moment she found him on an online dating website. Tall, charming and handsome in that rural, rancher kind of way, Jimmie Stuteville seemed to be the perfect man for her.
He reminded her of Bill, her late husband.
“Bill was the love of my life, the nicest, kindest man in the world, and I was devastated when he died,” Judy Holcomb said of the man she had loved for 25 years until his death of health problems in May 2003. “Then here comes this man who looks like him, talks like him, even wears the same size clothes. And he’s telling me God sent him to help me with my children, and I believed him because I wanted to stop crying, and I let him in.”
Stuteville, as he describes himself in his online profile, was 56, a longtime rancher and farmer, former safety manager of a large company and a believer of God, family and country.
Holcomb was a domestic violence hearing officer for the 7th Judicial District in Socorro, an associate professor at New Mexico Tech and a mother of seven children, including five children she and Bill had adopted from Vietnam. She was two weeks shy of her 53rd birthday and thinking she had just been given the perfect gift: someone to heal her heart, help her raise her children and run her 26-acre ranch near Magdalena.
They married in September 2004, six weeks after they met.
In 2005, she underwent in vitro fertilization and gave birth to the couple’s son.
To her friends in the far-flung ranching communities of central New Mexico, her life seemed nice. Her children were bright and friendly. Several of the girls were accomplished horsewomen and royalty in local rodeos.
“They were so fun and so well-mannered,” friend Dawn Weaver said. “Everybody knew Judy’s kids.”
But the marriage was turning out to be not so nice, Holcomb said. After 10 years, the marriage was through.
Holcomb said she had become aware of Stuteville’s secrets. He had been married numerous times, at least two of those marriages ending in annulments over allegations of fraud.
Court documents filed in 2003 by a Tucson woman to whom Stuteville had been married for eight months, for example, accused him of fabricating information and making “serious misrepresentations and omissions” concerning his financial worth and abilities.
Holcomb contends he appeared to go “from woman to woman, mooching off them.”
That seemed to be what he was doing to her, she said, living off her income and the monthly $1,000 Social Security benefits each minor child from her previous marriage received after their father’s death. Holcomb said she believes Stuteville also knew that she was beneficiary of an aging aunt’s sizable estate.
Several attempts to reach Stuteville by telephone for this story were unsuccessful.
‘He tried to kill me’
On Sept. 17, 2014, things turned far darker for Holcomb.
The marriage, by then, had already crumbled. Holcomb said she had told Stuteville she wanted a divorce.
What happened that night changed her life forever. She suffered serious injuries that have led to permanent damage, which she says her husband caused trying to kill her. A grand jury eventually heard the case against him but decided not to indict. She has not seen her younger children since that night, and a court has decided that neither parent should have custody of the children at this point.
According to court, hospital and State Police records: Holcomb says she woke up at 4:30 that morning at her Magdalena ranch because she had plans to meet her daughter AnneMarie, who lives in Socorro, on her way to Albuquerque.
Stuteville, she said, was already up and standing next to the stairwell next to one of her teenage sons.
“OK,” she heard Stuteville say, “let’s get this done.”
Then, she told authorities, he flung her down the stairs. She was dragged to another flight of stairs and thrown down again. She was dragged back up to the top of the stairs and thrown down for a third time.
“I remember hearing Jim say, ‘You just need to die. Why won’t you die? Your kids want you dead,’ ” she said in an interview with the Journal.
The son later told State Police that Stuteville had asked him if he was ready to kill his mother.
“He went on to say that his father was tired of her and that he said that she was crazy and it was time for her to go,” the police report says.
Holcomb said she agreed to help Stuteville kill her by taking an overdose of pain medication because it would end her agony.
By that time, her daughter AnneMarie, concerned that her mother hadn’t shown up, started making calls. Holcomb said she believes Stuteville felt he had no choice but to take her to the hospital in Socorro.
But on the way, he crashed his truck. Holcomb had not been secured in a seat belt.
One of Holcomb’s daughters told police that Stuteville “was going to crash the truck in attempts to kill” her mother.
Records show Holcomb arrived at the Socorro hospital emergency room more than seven hours after her first fall down the stairs. She suffered a fractured right arm, traumatic brain injury, a large cut to the back of her head and extensive bruising.
Before losing consciousness, she whispered: “He tried to kill me.”
Fifteen days later, she filed for divorce.
Stuteville provided an entirely different picture of what transpired that morning. According to divorce documents filed by his attorneys, he contends that Holcomb had either intentionally or accidentally fallen down the stairs while under the influence of hydrocodone and Xanax, empty bottles of which had been found in her bedroom.
Stuteville also alleged that Holcomb was an abusive mother who beat her children with a large wooden post. The children were so terrified of her that they had formed a suicide pact should they be forced to live with her after her release from the hospital, he said. Several had cut themselves. Others had hidden backpacks in the woods nearby should they have to flee the home quickly, the court documents allege.
Holcomb has denied the abuse allegations. And Weaver, her friend, said she had often been around the children and never saw signs of abuse.
But Family Court Judge Gerard Lavelle in Albuquerque was not convinced. Lavelle, assigned the case after judges in Socorro recused themselves because Holcomb was a colleague, awarded custody of the minor children, ages 11 to 17, to Stuteville and allowed him to remain in Holcomb’s Magdalena home.
Holcomb, still healing physically and mentally, said she had no choice but to agree.
In October 2016, she was stronger and so was the case against Stuteville.
Laura Cass, court-appointed guardian ad litem for the children, issued an emergency recommendation urging the judge to remove the children from Stuteville’s custody because she believed that Stuteville had indeed tried to “murder” their mother, coerced the children to cover up the crime and was using them to help find a new woman.
“Father had a financial motivation to kill Mother along with a marriage that had deteriorated,” Cass wrote. “In his attempt to meet his own greed and interests, he included the children in a crime and cover up.”
But she also recommended that the children not be returned to Holcomb because of the allegations of abuse against her. Both parents, she said, were unfit.
The judge agreed and ordered that the children be placed in third-party homes with other families and that neither parent be allowed to see them.
The judge also echoed Cass’ opinion that Stuteville had attacked Holcomb.
“Respondent was the principal, if not only, actor in a brutal assault on the petitioner in the parties’ home, with the children present,” Lavelle wrote.
Stuteville was not charged in the case.
But earlier this year, Weaver and other friends of Holcomb’s obtained enough signatures to file a petition to convene a citizen’s grand jury to hear the case against Stuteville. Last month, that grand jury was convened. On Nov. 29, the grand jury chose not to indict Stuteville. Because grand jury proceedings are secret, it’s unclear why.
“I can tell you that the grand jury met over a period of four days and heard from numerous witnesses and rendered their decision,” said Henry Valdez, the former district attorney in Santa Fe who was appointed as special prosecutor to present the case. “Nobody can tell you what the grand jury heard.”
With no indictment forthcoming, Stuteville on Monday renewed his legal claims to regain custody of the four minor children.
Holcomb has remained undeterred. In June 2016, she filed what may be one of the first civil lawsuits seeking to recover damages as the spouse victim of a domestic violence attack. A decision by state District Judge Allen Smith in Socorro is expected in January.
“If I lose, it means victims like me will never have recourse from injuries inflicted as part of a marriage,” Holcomb said.
Holcomb knows a lot about losing these days. She has not seen her younger children since September 2014. She still struggles with the residual effects of her injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder. She is no longer able to work.
A day after Thanksgiving, her ranch house in Magdalena mysteriously burned to the ground. All she was able to save were her laptop, her dogs, her cockatoo and the clothes she was wearing. For now, home is an extended-stay suite in Albuquerque.
“I literally have nothing left,” she said.
Still, she said, she is thankful for the friends who still surround her and for her children, who are grown and out of reach of both the courts and her ex-husband. Posts on one son’s Facebook are filled with photos of happier times as a family. On one photo, he wrote about his hopes that life will be nicer for the family in 2018. His mother hopes for that, too.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.